How ironic that the band from the class of ’77 that seemed to stand least for the tenets of punk at the outset should wind up the one that remained truest to them over the long haul. The Jam’s refusal to compromise their ideals and integrity during a six-year career tends to polarize reactions to them. In the end, once-common complaints about unoriginality and Paul Weller’s lack of vocal prowess are overshadowed by their accomplishments as songwriters, musicians and commentators, but mostly by the Jam’s living proof that a band’s commercial success need not divorce it utterly from its fans or sense of purpose. The trio’s parting at the end of 1982 can be looked at as symbolic of victory (a courageous decision not to become pointless dinosaurs in the UK, where they were virtually superstars) or failure (they were never able to achieve more than modest success in America, despite plenty of effort on the part of both the Jam and their label) or just as an indication that Weller’s ever-changing moods had led him away from the Jam’s rock’n’soul aesthetic towards more “stylish” pursuits. Regardless, the Jam left behind a recorded legacy as important as any the new wave produced.
Black mohair suits, smart white shirts, skinny ties, stylish razor-cut hair, Rickenbacker guitars — on In the City the Jam were the new mods, emerging from a sea of spiky-haired leather-and-chain-clad punks. They may have looked different, but their energy level gave no ground, as Weller’s jagged, choppy double-tracked guitar led the attack over Bruce Foxton’s busy, melodic bass lines and Rick Buckler’s stiff-backed drumming. The songs themselves are as taut and well manicured as the group, but match the explosiveness and attitude of the punks easily enough to establish an indisputable kinship to bands like the Sex Pistols and Clash. (It was no surprise when the Pistols swiped the riff for “Holidays in the Sun” from Weller’s “In the City.”)
If the songs and playing of In the City are derivative — especially of The Who Sings My Generation and ’60s Motown — there’s no arguing that the Jam was speaking to a generation for whom it was all new. Also, the main points — youth regaining pop culture from the grasp of conservative people with old- fashioned ideas, the individual vs. the crowd — were well taken by the group’s growing British following.
This Is the Modern World, recorded just months after In the City was released, is a cleaner- produced version of its predecessor, breaking little new ground. The songs themselves are hit-and-miss, with “The Modern World,” “Standards” and “All Around the World” (a brilliant single added to the US version of the LP) the obvious standouts.
Since they had by then spawned dozens of neo-mod soundalikes, the Jam needed a change of direction, and on All Mod Cons, Weller rose to the challenge. Prior inconsistency is replaced by an album that explores new avenues with almost complete success, while never straying too far from the band’s roots. Weller’s writing showed him to have blossomed into a major-league tunesmith, as well as a lyricist possessing a keen eye for detail and a refreshing sense of the vagaries of his own position. While retaining a great deal of the Who influence, the Jam also began to incorporate other sources. (Especially Ray Davies, which resulted not only in a hit version of the Kinks’ “David Watts” but also in the biting social commentary of “Mr. Clean.”) “In the Crowd” gives Weller a chance to open up as a guitarist and proves that he’s more than just a Townshend copyist. All Mod Cons is a brilliant record.
Setting Sons takes five songs from a scrapped concept album about three friends who meet after much of England has been destroyed by atomic war and combines them with four even bleaker tracks, then lightens up by ending the LP with a version of the uplifting “Heatwave.” The album is the Jam’s most somber — not that any of their records are big on humor — but it is also their most effective. Weller’s songs stick, and the beauty of his melodies provides stark contrast to the blackness of his lyrical vision.
Perhaps as a conscious change from the heaviness of Setting Sons, Sound Affects is more danceable and, for the most part, less pointed, although songs like “That’s Entertainment” are hardly cheerful. The rage is still there, but it’s channeled into fiery playing and singing, loosening up somewhat on the lyrics.
The Jam EP — five songs previously released on singles — served mostly as an interim measure between LPs, but includes essential tracks — “Absolute Beginners,” “Funeral Pyre” — as well as the Who’s arcane “Disguises.”
The Gift explores a lot of new territory on songs like “Trans-Global Express” and “Precious,” where a strong funk/Latin rhythm fueled by loads of percussion is heavily in evidence. The album takes a lot of chances and doesn’t always succeed; some of the rhythmic experiments sound forced, others fall victim to overly dense, ponderous production. The Gift has its moments — notably “Happy Together,” “Ghosts” and the Motownish “Town Called Malice.” It also offers some evidence as to why Weller may have felt the band had exhausted its possibilities.
The Bitterest Pill (named for an emotional song with one of Weller’s best vocals) shows the band forging still further into the realm of R&B. Although not recorded as such, the five tracks form a cohesive work.
Beat Surrender, containing the Jam’s last studio work together, was released as a British double-45 and an American 12-inch. The driving title track is absolutely smashing, and the four accompanying tracks are swell as well, including a lively rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” The record is additionally noteworthy for its audible indications of Weller’s subsequent direction with the Style Council.
Dig the New Breed, issued after the band’s split had been announced, is an honest, retrospective live album (complete with bum notes) recorded at gigs during various stages of the Jam’s career — a powerful parting shot. Snap! is an awesome two-disc career compilation (including a remixed “Funeral Pyre” and a demo version of “That’s Entertainment”) which was later abridged and issued on CD as Compact Snap!.
Recorded in April ’77, The Peel Session contains versions of three songs from the group’s debut album, plus the title track of the then-yet-to-be-released This Is the Modern World, that are barely distinguishable from the originals, save for the fact that these sound about a thousand times better. A worthwhile investment for real fans.
After six years spent growing up in public with the Jam, Weller moved himself into a more relaxed, less restrictive framework. That in mind, he enlisted the services of former Merton Parkas/Dexys Midnight Runners keyboard player Mick Talbot to form the Style Council, using guests to supply all the other needed instruments. Promising that the band would be nothing if not unpredictable, the duo then proceeded to issue a single, “Speak Like a Child,” that sounded much like where the Jam left off. Another single, the funky “Money-Go-Round,” preceded the four-song A Paris EP, the sleeve of which shows the pair carefully posed with the Eiffel Tower in the background, looking like a Giorgio Armani ad. Highlighted by the catchy “Long Hot Summer,” the material is light, breezy summertime soul, owing as much to Weller’s pretensions of some sort of continental flair as it does to obvious referents like Curtis Mayfield.
The American Introducing the Style Council combined both singles with the contents of the UK EP, although some of the numbers were remixed. Not released in England, it sold better there as an import than it did in the country of its issue.
Café Bleu and My Ever Changing Moods are equivalent LPs with slightly different tracks. (The resequenced US version replaces two minor cuts with the UK hit, “A Solid Bond in Your Heart.”) A scrambled assortment of soul, be-bop, cocktail jazz, rap and whatever else Weller could think of, it’s simply too schizophrenic to be a good album, although it does show integrity — this band is unlikely to be guided by public demand. “Headstart for Happiness” and “The Paris Match” (this time featuring Everything but the Girl) are improved versions of previously released material; “My Ever Changing Moods” gave Weller the first US Top 30 single of his career.
The Style Council’s second album was also released in alternate trans-Atlantic forms. Internationalists has a different cover than Our Favourite Shop and omits the latter’s title song. Though still rather varied, the album is much more coherent than its predecessor. There are still clinkers: “The Stand Up Comic’s Instructions” is clever but awkward, and the rhumba-shuffle of “All Gone Away” would sound at home in a dentist’s office. However, tracks like “Walls Come Tumbling Down!,” “Come to Milton Keynes” and “Boy Who Cried Wolf” more than tip the scales in the record’s favor. As ever, it’s undeniable that Weller means every word, but the continuing trend towards a crystalline, antiseptic sound is unfortunate.
It was obvious that the Absolute Beginners film was not going to be released without a contribution from Weller, so the band rewrote “With Everything to Lose” from the second album (itself already a direct lift from “Long Hot Summer”) and came up with “Have You Ever Had It Blue.” Shortly thereafter, the Style Council issued a live album, Home & Abroad, a squeaky-clean, all-too-accurate collection of songs drawn from both albums as well as singles. (The UK CD adds two tracks.) Considering that the Style Council often put live version on their flipsides (see The Lodgers EP), this set seems to be mostly for those who absolutely must own everything Weller puts his name to.
By the time The Cost of Loving was released, both Weller’s demi-god status in Britain and the Style Council’s significance had plunged. The LP — originally issued in limited UK quantities as a set of two 12-inch 45s — is nothing more than a collection of redundant, forgettable jazz/soul trifles, played very professionally but bloodlessly, with arrangements that resemble Chicago (the band) more than anything else. The first album of Weller’s career to fall completely on its face comes after a lengthy drought of particularly meritorious undertakings. Ousted by Morrissey as young England’s favorite male pop icon, his creativity seems to be waning. Can a Jam reunion be far off?
Maybe not, but the Style Council’s adjournment was certainly due. The trio (by this point, singer Dee C. Lee, the talented Mrs. Weller, was counted officially in the lineup) stuck together long enough to make Confessions of a Pop Group, a presentable outing with some of the irascible songwriter’s grouchiest and most dispirited lyrics. Weller’s general disgust at everything in sight is vitriolic and undisguised: the record’s very first sound is a toilet flushing. Ending the LP’s brassy soul-funk-pop portion, the nine-minute-plus title track (which bears a frightening stylistic resemblance to Tears for Fears’ third album) offers a vindictive, disillusioned dismissal of modern England: “Cheap and tacky bullshit land/Told when to sit don’t know where you stand/Too busy recreating the past/To live in the future.” The rest of the long record is given over to “The Piano Paintings,” a collection of jazzy songs with fancy vocal arrangements (the Swingle Singers guest on “The Story of Someones Shoe”) and lots of work for Talbot’s magic fingers. Capping things off with a grandly thumbed nose, the LP ends with a glibly pretentious ten- minute orchestral suite (complete with harp!) whose coda is a doo-wop chorus.
The Singular Adventures is a nearly complete UK singles recap, from 1983’s “Speak Like a Child” through “Life at a Top Peoples Health Farm” (from Confessions). By scraping away the band’s many indulgences and self-amused digressions, the cogent fourteen-track set (sixteen on tape/CD) winds up being an ideal souvenir, a stylish scrapbook loaded with great songs. By early ’90, Weller was off to form the Paul Weller Movement. Dee C. Lee was fronting a band called Slam Slam (hubby co-wrote and co-produced most of the album).
Weller was wise to back out of the dead end that the Style Council had become, but he left behind enough halfbaked odds and ends, many of them previously unreleased, to assemble Here’s Some That Got Away, a sorry epilogue to the band. (The tracks didn’t get away — they were hiding out, hoping no one would stumble on them.)
The Jam’s monumental commercial stature in Great Britain explains why the flow of releases has continued, more than a decade after the band’s demise. The ideal Jam album for neophytes and fans alike, Greatest Hits offers nineteen picture-perfect products (1977’s “In the City” to 1982’s “Beat Surrender”) of a brash and brilliant band that was both of its time and quite contrary to it. Extras expands on the topic with good-to-great B-sides, demos, rarities and outtakes, including touchstone covers of songs by the Who, Small Faces, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and the Chi-Lites. Live Jam consists of two dozen concert tracks, recorded at various shows between 1979 and 1982.
Post-Jam, Rick Buckler formed Time (UK) with ex-Tom Robinson Band guitarist Danny Kustow and issued a handful of singles in the mid-’80s.
Bruce Foxton had to try and relaunch his career virtually from ground zero but the bassist’s solo album is quite good, and happily free of any attempt to reproduce the sound which made him famous. With a four-man band and a bunch of guests, Foxton sings and plays ten original tunes in a number of styles, from busy dance-rock to wistful big-production pop. Throughout, he adapts his bluff voice as best he can; ingenuous earnestness is a strong suit. The lyrics regularly mention loss, individual responsibility and uncertainty — it’s obvious the Jam’s end was a traumatic experience for him — but Touch Sensitive is a promising (albeit unsuccessful) new beginning for a sincere, talented performer.